2021 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Forum on China-Africa Relations (FOCAC). While FOCAC wasn’t the first of the so-called Africa Plus One summits (Japan’s Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) predates it) it has come to set the template for how the continent engages with external powers. The success of FOCAC has spurred many similar initiatives between African countries and partners as diverse as Russia, India, the EU, and even Indonesia.
But even as it helped to define interactions between Africa and the outside world, FOCAC itself has also evolved. This evolution also set the stage for shifts in the wider Africa-China relationship.
The triennial FOCAC summit became a regular occasion for the announcement of ever-increasing funding targets, from $5 billion in 2006, to two commitments of $60 billion in 2015 and 2018. However, the plateau these targets reached at the last two summits were an early indication of a coming shift in Chinese lending to the continent. From 2018, researchers have detected a sharp reduction in official Chinese bilateral lending to African countries. This shift reflects concern in Beijing about China’s exposure to debt in the Global South. This trend was exacerbated also by the economic crisis that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant debt crisis on the continent.
Recent research has indicated decreased lending by Chinese policy banks, especially for large-scale infrastructure projects, a major area of traditional engagement. Instead, the number of Chinese lenders seems to be growing. While state-affiliated entities like China Exim Bank are used to dominate, greater numbers of commercial banks and non-traditional lenders are joining the field. At the same time, the proportion of commercial over concessional lending seems to be increasing.
Infrastructure and extractives traditionally formed the backbone of the Africa-China relationship. While they remain prominent, their centrality has waned somewhat, due to a confluence of factors. As financing for hard infrastructure shrunk, there has been a rapid increase in cooperation in areas like digital and health cooperation. This is fueled by an emphasis on these forms of connectivity as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and by a renewed Chinese emphasis on health cooperation in the wake of the global pandemic. This took place as China was also working to diversify its sources of raw materials through broadening its global engagement via the BRI. The result was that even as new areas of Africa-China engagement like tech bloomed, the amounts of oil and other raw resources China imports from Africa are falling. While certain extractive sectors like cobalt remain robust, traditional ones like hydrocarbons are declining in importance.
At the same time, pro-active engagement from African governments has also broadened the field of cooperation. African pressure led to peacekeeping becoming a significant field of cooperation from the 2012 FOCAC summit onwards. Similarly, military cooperation, training and skills transfer and cooperation against wildlife crime all became part of the FOCAC conversation over time.
The Trump administration’s confrontational stance towards China - one that has survived in substance (if not style) under President Biden - has put additional stress on the Africa-China relationship. One field of geostrategic contention is the digital connectivity initiatives under the BRI. Chinese telecommunication companies are key actors at each level of Africa’s burgeoning telecom sector: from undersea cable installation to building terrestrial networks to cooperation with African service providers to mobile handset sales. In addition, Africa’s groundbreaking mobile fintech sector (in which the continent is a world leader) is closely enmeshed with tools and platforms offered by Chinese companies like Huawei. There is increasing pressure from the United States and its allies for countries in the Global South to choose sides between Chinese providers and their global competitors. African leaders like South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Kenyan ICT Minister Joe Mucheru have so far rejected this pressure as impeding their agency and freedom to craft their own national cyber-development plans. This argument is bolstered by the fact that few competitors provide similar levels of comprehensive service (especially in fragile economies) while Chinese companies also offer highly efficient financing packages from Chinese state banks.
The issue of how African decision-makers exercise agency in relation to Chinese power remains one of the most fundamental in the Africa-China relationship. While the FOCAC experience has shown that it is possible for these countries to promote a continental agenda in their interactions with China, the power imbalance between the two sides shapes all interactions. This is exacerbated by China’s insistence on bilateral relationships as the fundamental building block of its African (and global) engagement – a dynamic that became very clear during the debt negotiations of 2020 and 2021, when China’s participation in the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative was complicated by its insistence that each contract had to be negotiated individually, a dynamic exacerbated by the wide range of Chinese lenders (both bilateral and commercial, with some dispute about the distinction.).
While African borrowers found themselves in a distinctly disempowered position during these negotiations, researchers have also shown that African leaders have found ways of maximizing their agency vis-à-vis China. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo has managed to play Chinese and Western actors against each other in order to force concessions on a large resources-for-infrastructure deal from both sides.
However, more research is needed to interrogate the issue of African agency in relation to Chinese power, especially in the context of greater tensions between China and Africa’s traditional Western partners. There is the danger that the agency debate will be distorted by this binarism, with each decision against China celebrated as an exercise in agency, and all forms of cooperation characterized as China stripping African countries of self-determination. Instead, controversial issues such as the Chinese provision of surveillance technologies to African governments should provide the occasion for sharper analysis of African governmental agendas, without simply labeling those as China exporting authoritarianism. To avoid this form of distortion, it is crucial to pay more attention to how Chinese power plays into the interactions between African governments, civil society and local communities.